The first discussions about a university for the Sunshine Coast region began in 1973. In 1989, the Australian Federal Government approved its establishment. On 1 July 1994 the Queensland Parliament passed the Sunshine Coast University College Act 1994.
The university was established in 1994, opening in 1996 as the Sunshine Coast University College. The University of the Sunshine Coast Act 1998 was passed in Queensland Parliament on 19 November of that year, legislating the independent status of the university. The university changed to its current name of the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in 1999. It was created by the Australian Government to serve the growing population of the Sunshine Coast region, north of Brisbane, in Queensland. The University of the Sunshine Coast is the first greenfield university established in Australia since 1971.
The inaugural vice-chancellor was Professor Paul Thomas, AM, who took office with effect from 1 January 1996, having spent an earlier period as planning president. USC's second vice-chancellor, Professor Greg Hill AO, took over from Professor Thomas AM in 2011 after starting at the university in 2005 as deputy vice-chancellor. He stayed in the role until August 2020 when Professor Helen Bartlett joined as the university's third vice-chancellor.